(Editor’s note: Adds in 17th paragraph WRMEA’s response to queries about circumstances surrounding the decision to alter the story years after it was first published.)
(CNSNews.com) – A Washington-based publication said Tuesday that it incorrectly quoted President Barack Obama’s newly appointed envoy to the Organization of the Islamic Conference as saying in 2004 that an American who aided a Palestinian terrorist group was the victim of “politically motivated persecutions.”
The Washington Report on Middle East Affairs (WRMEA) was responding to queries about why an archived story quoting Rashad Hussain as making the controversial comments was altered years later.
WRMEA News Editor and Executive Director Delinda Hanley denied there was a “cover-up,” and implied that anti-Muslim discrimination was behind the fact this was now being raised.
At the time of the quoted remarks Hussain was a Yale law student. Last year he was appointed White House deputy associate counsel and Obama at the weekend named him as special envoy to the OIC, the 57-member bloc of Islamic states.
CNSNews.com reported earlier that Hussain was quoted in a November 2004 WRMEA article as telling a Muslim students’ event in Chicago that the situation facing Sami al-Arian – a university professor then in custody and later convicted and jailed for conspiring to aid a Palestinian terrorist group – was “politically motivated” and a means “to squash dissent.”
It was also reported that the WRMEA article was amended – at least three years later, according to an Internet archive site – with the paragraphs quoting Hussain removed (see the original and revised pages).
Responding to queries first sent on Sunday, Hanley said Tuesday that the comments attributed to Hussain were actually made by another person attending the event in Chicago, Sami al-Arian’s daughter, Laila al-Arian.
Hanley said an “intern” who attended the event and wrote the story had made an “error.” When this was discovered, the quotes were deleted, she said.
But the writer, contacted by e-mail on Tuesday, denied this.
“When I worked as a reporter at WRMEA, I understood how important it was to quote the right person, and accurately,” Shereen Kandil said. “I have never mixed my sources and wouldn’t have quoted Rashad Hussain if it came from Laila al-Arian.”
“If the editors from WRMEA felt they wanted to remove Rashad Hussain from the article, my assumption is that they did it for reasons other than what you’re saying,” she said. “They never once contacted me about an ‘error’ they claim I made.”
Kandil also said that at the time the story was published, she had completed her internship and had been a full-time WRMEA staff member for five months.
‘A simple error, no big cover-up’
Hanley conceded later on Tuesday that she may have made a mistake, but denied that there was a cover-up.
“My memory was that Shereen had been contacted about this and she had told me to change it," said Hanley. "So I must have made a mistake if she denies it. Perhaps someone contacted our Web master directly.”
After looking further into the matter, Hanley said several hours later that the WRMEA Web master thought the archived story had been altered on Feb. 5, 2009, although it was also possible that the change had been made “when our Web site began an ongoing redesign.”
Hussain was named as a White House deputy associate counsel on January 28, 2009.
Asked whether either Hussain, or anyone else, had approached the WRMEA to ask for the story to be altered – and if so, when this had occurred – Hanley said she could not remember the circumstances.
“We cannot find an e-mail paper trail and we have spent a long time checking on this. I probably asked for the change but I honestly can’t recall who asked me to make it.”
She maintained that the WRMEA reporter had mistakenly attributed the comments to Hussain.
“When an intern (or even a pro) writes a story and they are taking notes covering various speakers, especially during a Q/A session, it is easy to make a mistake,” she said. “I would guess it’s a writer’s simple error and not a big cover-up.”
“I’d be very curious to find out if I had said this or another non-Muslim speaker or commentator, would this be such an issue?” Hanley said. “Seems like this article is evidence that Muslim Americans are facing serious discrimination in our post 9/11 country.”
Queries sent Tuesday to Laila al-Arian – the person Hanley says actually made the comments – brought no immediate response.
Attempts to reach Hussain to ask him directly about the quoted comments were also unsuccessful. He is traveling with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in the Middle East. On Tuesday, he and Clinton met with the OIC Secretary-General Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu at the organization’s Jeddah headquarters.
Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs Philip Crowley, who is traveling with Hussain and Clinton, referred queries to the White House.
Crowley said Hussain had been “very well received” during the visits to Saudi Arabia and Qatar. “He will be working with the OIC on important cooperation on a range of issues from polio eradication to election monitoring in Iraq.”
A White House official told Politico Tuesday that Hussain remembered attending the Chicago event but “certainly doesn’t recall making that statement.”
A project of the non-profit American Educational Trust, the WRMEA focuses on U.S. relations with the Muslims world and the Israeli-Arab conflict – with clear pro-Palestinian sympathies – and says it has been “telling the truth for 27 years.”
“In general, the Washington Report supports Middle East solutions which it judges to be consistent with the charter of the United Nations and traditional American support for human rights, self-determination, and fair play,” it says on its Web site.